Addressing Social Justice and Environmental Health in the Construction Industry: Polymers, Toxins, and Philadelphia Energy Solutions
My research aims to raise awareness to the design community about the lifecycle of architectural plastics, from raw material extraction to waste phases, using Philadelphia as a case study. To this end, I have collected data about Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ history of environmental contamination, the material flows in and out of the site, and the human health consequences of the site’s refining activities. I traced the material life cycles of manufactured fossil-fuel derived products from similar local facilities, specifically, Ashland Chemical, Honeywell Frankford, and Allied Tube and Conduit. The result of this inquiry shows that petroleum refining waste flows from PES to those three other sites to create specific architectural plastics used ubiquitously throughout the building industry: PVC, BPA, PMMA, and PS. Using EPA databases, I found that these sites have historically emitted toxic pollutants at levels which exceed those deemed safe by the federal government, and therefore present risks to the surrounding community and environment. EPA data reveals that the people living near PES have an increased risk of developing cancer and other illnesses, as compared to the rest of the state, EPA region, and country. This population is largely comprised of low income earners and people of color, which raises concerns about environmental injustice. This research is important because most people, architects included, lack an understanding of the human health impacts of chemicals in their built environment. This is problematic because those chemicals which are present in our built environment present specific risks throughout their lifecycles to the many people who come into contact with them, from the factory workers who initially manufacture construction materials to those who ultimately dispose of building waste. Designers rarely see the effects of material choices they make; workers at manufacturing facilities have prolonged exposures to harmful chemicals, and the offgassing of paint and the physical warping of hard surfaces have health effects on residents for both the short and long term.